Talk grows about making Wild Cards wilder
Many favor making road tougher, but how to accomplish that?
In one sense, the clash between the Yankees and Rays for the American League East crown could not be more captivating. It's the ultimate big guy vs. little guy brouhaha, with not just a division but also, potentially, best-record-in-baseball bragging rights on the line.But in another sense -- and as several national media voices have pointed out in recent days -- this very same battle is somewhat anticlimactic. After all, the loser of the fight is all but assured of a postseason berth, thanks to the Wild Card. And while said Wild Card club will be saddled with the inability to draw home-field advantage in the postseason, consider this: Since 1998, when MLB adopted the present playoff scheduling format, the team without home-field advantage has won exactly half the time -- 24 of 48 Division Series and 14 of 28 League Championship Series. So if history is any indication, the Wild Card entry into the postseason, it would appear, does not enter with any truly discernible disadvantages. "Something has to be done to diminish the effect of the Wild Card, to [give Wild Card teams] a tougher time of it," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "You want the [regular] season to mean so much."
Last year, Commissioner Bud Selig formed a 14-person special committee for on-field matters, of which Torre is a member, to consider ways to improve the game, promising there would be no "sacred cows" and that the floor would be open to any and all ideas.Combine that development with the looming labor talks that will pick up steam before the current Basic Agreement expires on Dec. 11, 2011, and now is as good a time as any to propose suggestions to upgrade an already enrapturing October. Thus arises the argument -- thrust into the national conversation in recent columns by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci and ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, among others -- that perhaps Major League Baseball ought to rethink the Wild Card and the playoff format, in general. Their idea is to add a second Wild Card entry to each league and have the two Wild Card teams face each other, either in a one-game elimination the day after the conclusion of the regular season or in a short -- say, best-of-three -- series. The thinking behind the argument is that the two Wild Card teams that advance will have the disadvantage of having used their aces, if available, before the Division Series, while the six division winners will get the benefit of extra rest. In short, then, winning your division outright would provide you with a real advantage, and winning the Wild Card would leave you with a tougher hill to climb. "That's a great argument," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "It might make it a little more exciting." Indeed, more teams and more cities would find themselves experiencing the thrill of the playoff chase down the stretch. It could generate more revenues and, generally speaking, more interest in the sport. "It could be good for baseball," Twins starter Carl Pavano said. "It can't be a one-game series. It would have to be best-of-three. But that does sound cool, because it would give more teams a chance to go to the World Series. It's not always the best team that wins the World Series. It's the team that gets on fire at the right time." But how many playoff teams is too many playoff teams? That's the question that arose most often when this idea was posed to players and managers. Even Torre, who expressed interest in toughening the road for Wild Card clubs, admitted he's a "purist" who "never liked the first Wild Card" when it was initially suggested. Baseball, of course, is not short on purists, and the worry is that expanding the playoffs to include two more teams would water down the magic of October. "It's going to be the NHL or NBA, where everyone gets in?" White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "I think it's fine [the way it is]. It's fun. I wish more teams could be in the playoffs, but they did a good job to put the Wild Card in there and make it more interesting for more fans." Though open to suggestions on sustaining the sport's health, especially in tough economic times, Selig hasn't expressed much interest in increasing the playoff field. "I've said to the clubs in the past," Selig told MLB.com in May, "'If you want to cut the regular-season schedule, then we can talk about it. But we can't have both.'" And for the record, clubs have not expressed any interest in shortening the 162-game schedule. That's the inherent difficulty of trying to implement a playoff expansion idea. Though the playoff schedule has been tightened with fewer off-days and next year's regular season will be starting earlier to avoid World Series games in November, there isn't much, if any, wiggle room to add another round to the postseason. "I'm sure TV ratings would love it and the money issue would be great," Astros infielder Geoff Blum said. "But you're already putting your players and starting staffs and pitchers in jeopardy playing with that many games already. I don't know how many owners would enjoy that. Money's always good, but risking losing a pitcher for a series or all postseason would not be fun." Yes, the fun that would come from adding playoff teams is not without its consequences. There would certainly be logistical and scheduling issues. And while a one-game playoff between the Wild Card teams would be the most schedule-friendly scenario of them all, there would be competitive complaints thrown into the mix. For example, if the two-Wild Card system had been in effect last year, the Red Sox and Rangers would have claimed the two spots in the AL. Yet the Red Sox finished with 95 wins, while the Rangers won 87. Would it be fair for a team that won 95 games to have its season come down to a one-game playoff against a team that won eight fewer games? Some would argue that's not fair at all. As baseball inevitably sorts through the playoff picture in next year's labor talks, the players and owners will both be looking for a format that is equal parts fair and fun. If current conversations are any indication, then the addition of two Wild Card teams, while a nice conversation starter, does not appear all that likely. What might be more likely, however, is an expansion of the Division Series from a best-of-five format to a best-of-seven. That's an idea that seems to gaining momentum. "Anybody can get by anybody if it's three out of five," Hunter said. "And you have so many days off [during the series] that your [No. 1] starter can go twice, maybe a third time. Preferably, it would be a best-of-seven. You've got the ALCS and World Series at seven. I think they should make the whole thing seven." Hunter's manager, Mike Scioscia, is a member of Selig's special committee and was particularly vocal last year about the need to reduce the number of off-days in the postseason. Scioscia got his wish, to some degree, when an off-day was removed from the LCS round in this year's schedule. Now, Scioscia is vocal about the need to adjust the first-round format. If the Division Series doesn't go to a best-of-seven, Scioscia would at least like to see the Wild Card receive a more substantial disadvantage. "I'd like to see a Wild Card just get one game at home and have to go on the road [for the next] four games," Scioscia said. "That gives a standing advantage to the best team in the league." As the Yankees and Rays fight to be the best team in their division and in their league, they have the security blanket that is the Wild Card to fall back on. And as conversations around the league confirm, some would be in favor of taking that security blanket away.